Hello there! In this week’s blog we take up the great folk-protest song If I Had a Hammer. We will consider the original by Pete Seeger, and covers of that song by Peter, Paul & Mary and Trini Lopez.
Pete Seeger and If I Had a Hammer:
We encountered Pete Seeger earlier for his cover of the South African folk song Wimoweh. Pete was a titanic figure in the history of American folk music, and for decades was the most prominent activist using music to further progressive causes. He inherited this mantle from Woody Guthrie, and carried it until his death in January 2014. Below is a typical picture of Pete Seeger – lifting up his banjo and singing about peace, love and justice.
The song If I Had a Hammer was written by Seeger and his bandmate Lee Hays from the folk group The Weavers. It was
first performed publicly by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays on June 3, 1949, at St. Nicholas Arena in New York at a testimonial dinner for the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States, who were then on trial in federal court, charged with violating the Smith Act by advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government.
The song was subsequently recorded by The Weavers (Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman) and released in 1950 on Hootenanny Records as The Hammer Song. As a commercial record it was not particularly successful. However, it later adopted as a “Freedom Song” by the American Civil Rights movement, and it became associated with progressive movements on behalf of social justice. The song’s lyrics make it clear why this tune was so appropriate to those causes.
If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
The next two verses repeat the same refrain, but they replace the hammer by a bell or a song. The final verse then combines all three images. The song is a natural for any social justice movement as it exhorts its listeners to use the “hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, the song about love” in order to achieve progress in any area that one chooses (civil rights, anti-war efforts, solidarity with unions, the Occupy movement, you name it).
Here is Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at a live concert in 1956. This is vintage Pete – accompanied by his guitar, he sings the song while exhorting his audience to sing along with him. As time went by, Seeger audiences became more and more sophisticated – I have seen performances where his audience would spontaneously break into three-part harmony! This particular audience is somewhat more subdued — presumably they are waiting for rock music to come along and remove their inhibitions — although Pete gets a great hand both at the beginning and end of the song.
Pete Seeger is one of my heroes in part because his convictions are so strong. In 1955 back in the McCarthy-ite days, Seeger was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during their investigation of celebrities with ties to leftist organizations. Seeger offered to tell the committee about any songs he had sung but refused to name any of the organizations on whose behalf he had performed, on the grounds that he performed for hundreds of groups ranging from soldiers to pacifists. Seeger’s claim was that his activities and associations were not legitimate interests for a Congressional committee.
It took considerable courage for Seeger to refuse to testify, or to inform on his colleagues. Refusal to testify before Congress meant potential fines and/or jail, and a near certainty that one would be blacklisted. Faced with these choices, many people subsequently caved in and testified against their colleagues. Seeger, however, steadfastly refused to participate in the HUAC witch hunt; you can find a transcript of his testimony here. As a result he was convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in jail. Side note: imagine how overflowing our prison population would be if they were still throwing folks into jail for “contempt of Congress!”
Seeger was prepared to serve time for this, but his conviction was overturned after a lengthy appeal. Nevertheless, Seeger was blacklisted for over a decade by all of the network TV stations. And in 1960 the city of San Diego canceled a Seeger concert at a high school because he refused to sign an oath “pledging that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government.”
Peter, Paul & Mary and If I Had a Hammer:
Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were folksingers in New York City in the late 1950s, and Noel Stookey was an aspiring stand-up comedian who had arrived in the Big Apple from the Midwest. The legendary manager Albert Grossman auditioned them and several others for the purpose of assembling a folk-singing group. He hand-picked these three, told Noel Stookey to change his name to Paul, and rehearsed the group for several months in Boston and Miami. Following their rehearsals, Grossman took the group back to Greenwich Village and checked them into the Bitter End coffee-house.
Peter, Paul and Mary released their debut album in 1963; it immediately became a commercial bombshell. The album, packed with hit singles, shot up to #1 on the Billboard album list, remained in the top 10 for ten months, and eventually was certified double platinum. If I Had a Hammer was one of the songs on that album, along with another Pete Seeger song Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
I remember vividly first hearing their album and subsequently seeing them perform, a couple of times in the mid-60s and once much later on. Their music was really compelling, with their very pleasing harmonies complemented by Yarrow and Stookey’s guitars and an upright bass. Visually they were also quite striking, with Yarrow and Stookey’s dark-haired and bearded beatnik visages offset by Travers’ platinum-blond hair, square chin and striking good looks.
Although the three folksingers had been assembled into a group by Albert Grossman, they quite genuinely embraced their role in the folk-protest movement. Their first major performance in that arena was at the August 1963 March on Washington best known for Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. There they sang If I Had a Hammer and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. The photo below shows Peter, Paul and Mary performing at that march.
This was followed by fifty years of performing and social activism. The group broke up in 1970 but reunited in 1978. They then continued to perform together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009 from leukemia. One endearing characteristic was that the trio appeared to have genuine affection for one another.
In November 1969 I took part in the march on Washington, DC against the Vietnam War, along with half a million of my close friends. Peter, Paul & Mary appeared there and my recollection is that one of the songs they performed was If I Had a Hammer. My understanding is that Peter Yarrow was one of the organizers of that event, whose performers included Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, a quartet from the Cleveland Orchestra who played a particularly moving Beethoven piece, and the cast of Hair.
Here are Peter, Paul and Mary performing If I Had a Hammer at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. What a great cover of the Pete Seeger song! Mary Travers’ bright, clear vocals are beautifully paired with the harmonies from Yarrow and Stookey, whose strumming guitar work carries the song along at a rapid pace. The song builds to an impressive climax with the final stanza of All over this land, highlighted by Mary’s stirring finish. Makes you want to start marching for some cause!
Trini Lopez and If I Had a Hammer:
Trinidad ‘Trini’ Lopez is an American singer and guitarist who grew up in Dallas. As a young artist he met Buddy Holly, who steered him and his band to producer Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico. Lopez’ career there was not particularly successful and he subsequently moved to Los Angeles. There he became a headliner at PJ’s nightclub where he caught the eye of Frank Sinatra, who signed Lopez to a contract at Sinatra’s company Reprise Records.
In 1963 Reprise released his live debut album Trini Lopez at PJ’s. The album was a huge success, primarily due to his cover of If I Had a Hammer. That single made it to #3 on the Billboard Pop charts and was a gigantic world-wide hit, reaching the #1 spot in 36 other countries. The album, and in particular that single, launched Lopez’ career and established a pattern that he subsequently followed. He tended to produce folk-rock covers of classic folk songs, that generally highlighted his impressive guitar work.
Lopez subsequently had minor hits with covers of folk songs like Lemon Tree and Green, Green. He then became a successful nightclub performer and was in particular demand as a Las Vegas headliner. The Gibson guitar folks asked him to produce some signature guitars for them, and apparently today the Trini Lopez Standard and the Lopez Deluxe are valuable collectors’ items among guitar aficionados.
Here is Trini Lopez in a live performance of If I Had a Hammer, from 1963. This is a really enjoyable take on the Pete Seeger classic. Lopez dramatically increases the pace of the song and produces a much more swinging beat. His vocals are quite impressive, and when Trini sings “If I had a bell,” the drummer goes to work on the high hat.
Lopez continues to perform today although it has now been a long while since he had a commercial hit. It is worth noting that Lopez was one of the first successful Hispanic rockers. Ritchie Valens had initially blazed the trail for Hispanics in the mid-50s, but was tragically one of the victims of the 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and the ‘Big Bopper’ J.P. Richardson.